Mar 14 9:19 AM

The Resurrection of Jesus: What Actually Happened?

Mar 14 9:19 AM
Mar 14 9:19 AM

“We both ran toward the garden, then John ran on ahead, 

Found the stone and the empty tomb just the way that Mary said, 

But the winding sheet they wrapped Him in was just an empty shell, 

Who or where they’d taken Him was more than I could tell...” 

Don Francisco. Not that Don Francisco, the early 80s Contemporary Christian Music pioneer who wrote those 

lyrics in his signature song He’s Alive, Don Francisco. For a genre that (rightfully so) gets a bit of creative criticism 

from time to time, this acoustic ballad set in Peter’s perspective on that first Easter Sunday holds up quite well in 

our produced age. The next lines of the song capture what Peter’s thought process might have been as he tried to 

make sense of what might have happened: 

Oh something strange had happened there but what it was I did not know, 

John believed a miracle but I just turned to go, 

Circumstance and speculation couldn’t lif me very high, 

Because I’d seen them crucify Him and then I saw Him die. 

Peter walked into a cave that by all forms of logics and reason should have had a body but it did not. I think that a lot of us, in a different way, are a lot like Peter. We have questions about our faith that just don’t add up. Maybe, like Peter, you feel like Jesus has disappointed or abandoned you. Or maybe you have disappointed Him. Peter had denied Jesus so many times that he might have felt like there was no hope they could ever put their relationship back together. As in, you’ve messed up so many times, you don’t even know the way back. Again, Don Francisco capture a thought like this well as Peter muses in the song: 

Back inside the house again the guilt and anguish came, 

Everything I promised Him just added to my shame, 

When at last it came the choices, I denied I knew His name, 

Even if He was alive, it wouldn’t be the same. 

So let’s put ourselves in the shoes (sandals) of Peter on that first Easter Sunday. What happened and what could it mean for us? In this article, we are going to consider the evidence regarding the resurrection of Jesus. If it didn’t happen, then its game over for our faith because the foundation for everything we believe is a hoax. However, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then it changes everything and it’s game on for all things hopeful, joyful and peaceful! 

Now, just to shore up some skepticism before we begin, the fact that the tomb was empty that morning is a fairly agreed upon historical fact by both religious and secular scholars. Of course, not everyone believes Jesus rose from the dead, but just about every scholar agrees from historical evidence that a man named Jesus really lived, was executed by the Romans and buried, and three days later the tomb where He was buried was found empty. On those points, there is really no substantial disagreement. 

The real debate is how the tomb was emptied. Three options are generally put forth. 


Option 1: Someone Stole the Body. 

So here is how this one goes: somebody stole Jesus’ body and the myth started to grow that He was resurrected. However, then it turns into a detective story because someone had to have done it. (Side note, the 2016 movie Risen does a very good job at depicting what it may have been like from a Rome’s perspective as they tried to figure out who stole the body.) So for this option, we need suspects but not only that, 50 years of television procedurals on television have taught us we also need a means and motive. 

Suspect One: Romans 

These suspects would certainly have had the means to steal the body. Pilate, the Roman governor, ordered that the tomb be guarded with a garrison of Roman soldiers (Mathew 27:62-66). A garrison was 16 soldiers and the way it worked was that 4 would stand guard and 12 would sit in a semi-circle around them, changing out guard duty so that 4 soldiers were always fresh and alert.  

So maybe they stole him? Like soldiers playing a practical joke? 

Not likely. The problem with this explanation is that Pilate had placed a seal on the tomb (Mathew 27:66). Roman law stated that official seal was broken on punishment of death, which the soldiers would obviously have known.1 So for them to break the seal and steal the body, there had to be a compelling interest that was far greater than execution. There really isn’t a compelling motive for why these career soldiers would care about anything other than doing their job, avoiding execution and going home to have a few drinks at the end of the day. 

Well, maybe they were bribed? Again, not likely. It would have to have been a pretty big amount of cash for them to risk abandoning their post and facing execution! But, for arguments sake, let’s say that they were bribed. If Jethro Leroy Gibbs has taught us anything in 20 years of NCIS, it’s that we follow the case where it leads. So if they were bribed, who would have done it? Our next suspect... 

Suspect Two: The Jewish Leaders 

Perhaps the Jewish Leaders had a part in this. They would not have had any means to do this apart from the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb, so what would there motive have been? The only thing that historians have been able to come up with in regard to motive for the Jewish leaders, would have been to preempt the disciples stealing the body. 

The thinking goes like this: “If we steal the body first. When Jesus’ disciples say that He has resurrected, we’ll produce the body and say ‘Gotcha!’ and the movement will dissipate.” Which it obviously would have if they could have produced the body. However, no body was ever produced so it’s not likely the Jewish leaders did it. So if we can cross off the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders from our suspect list, that leaves one group of suspects left Jesus’ disciples. 

Suspect Three: The Disciples. 

There are two pretty big problem with the disciples as suspects however. 

One, how did they sneak past the garrison of 16, highly trained and motivated Roman soldiers? Interestingly, the winding sheet they wrapped Him in that was just an empty shell that Don Francisco sings about, is a reference to John 20:7 where the disciple John relates his eyewitness account that the linen was folded up neatly. Something that is fairly obvious is that thieves don’t take the time to fold the bedsheets in a house when they are doing a job. Thieves don’t usually put a lot of thought into the tidiness of the place they are robbing. 

Two, stealing Jesus’ body really would not have helped their cause. Think about it. In a religious hoax, the leaders always gain some tangible asset. As Creed Braton would say about being in a cult: “You have more fun as a follower but you make more money as a leader.” Whether its power, money or sex, the leaders of a new cult always gain something tangibly. What did the news that Jesus was resurrected gain for the disciples? 

No power. They were all under the thumb of either local Jewish or international Roman officials for their entire lives. Further, every single disciple to a man was tortured or killed because of this news they kept proclaiming 

No money. The disciples were poor and the book of Acts tells us that any money they had was given away to the poor. 

No sex. The disciples taught that sex was to be enjoyed and experienced between two people in a monogamous marriage. 

So there is no way that their motive would have been for sex, money or power like every other religious hoax. Would they have taught these things, and more importantly lived this way, if they knew the resurrection was a hoax and they had stolen the body? Probably not. 

So the theory that someone stole the body just doesn’t hold up. 

Option Two: Jesus Didn’t Really Die. 

This theory says that maybe Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. It’s called the Swoon Theory and it postulates that Jesus just passed out and when they put Him in the tomb, He recovered from His injuries. After that, He snuck out of the tomb and appeared to a few of his disciples. Finally, after convincing them that He had actually resurrected from the dead, He headed off to France where he began the Medici family with Mary Magdalene, living quietly until Tom Hanks broke his code back in 2006. 

Problem One: The Romans were Experts at Crucifixion 

One of the problems with this theory is that the Roman Empire were experts at crucifixion as a form of execution. They knew when somebody had died because they did it so much. In fact, Roman law said that if they pulled a man down before he died, those who took him down could be killed in the same way. In fact, just to make sure, the Roman soldiers assigned to the crucifixion pierced Jesus’ side with a spear. When that happened, Scripture tells us that blood and water came out (John 19:34). This is a pretty significant medical detail. Perhaps John didn’t know what that meant medically when he wrote his Gospel. However, we now know that afer someone has died, in that area of the body, the blood begins to clot so that the blood separates from the watery serum. To have seen “blood and water” would indicate that Jesus was dead prior to the spear in the side. Again, there’s no way that John could have medically known that at the time and yet he adds it as a detail that would verify that Jesus had indeed died. 

Problem Two: The Torture that Led Up to the Crucifixion 

The other problem is that Jesus had been severely beaten prior to his crucifixion. Ancient historians tell us that most people were not beaten prior to being crucified because Roman beatings ofen led to death. In fact, the ancient Roman poet Cicero confirmed that Roman beatings ofen ended in death for the person being beaten. He related that there was extreme losses of blood, sometimes disembowelment, and in some cases ribs flew off a person’s body. This is probably why Jesus died before the other two men he was crucified. The point here is that if anyone were to survive a crucifixion, it wouldn’t have been someone who had been whipped that brutally and lost that much blood. 

Let’s be honest, when what we believe as Christians is said out loud, it sounds prety crazy. A virgin gave birth in a feeding trough to a man who lived perfectly. He did things like turn water into wine and multiply bread and fish and control the weather and was ultimately killed. However, He rose from dead and appeared to a lot of people proving that it happened. These same people watched Him float up into heaven. Oh and one day, we believe He’s coming back to get us on a white horse. We believe that. So if someone asks a Christian, “Hey do you believe all that?” The answer would be, “Yeah. Yeah that’s what I believe.” But compare that to people saying Jesus didn’t really die? After Jesus was brutally beaten and scourged, carried a heavy wooden cross on His back, had spikes driven through His feet and hands, and was pierced deep into His side by a spear, He didn’t die.2 In the words of Cris Carter, “Come on man.” 

On top of that, if Jesus had somehow survived, one would have to explain how He slipped past that garrison of 16 highly trained and motivated Roman soldiers and convinced His disciples that in His battered and weakened condition He was indeed the Lord of all the earth and held the keys to eternity. 

So the theory that Jesus didn’t really die just doesn’t hold up either. 

Option Three: Jesus Really Did Rise From the Dead. 

This is by far the simplest explanation and seems to be the most compelling. This is what Christians have historically believed: Jesus was resurrected from the dead, appeared to His disciples, and commissioned them to go into the world testifying to His resurrection. So if this option is the simplest and seemingly the most compelling, why would people not accept it? 

The German philosopher Wolfart Pannenburg gives us a pretty good answer. For the record, Pannenburg rejected biblical inherency and was anything but a touchy-feely, Evangelical type of guy. He wrote, “The evidence for Jesus' resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.” 

First, Pannenburg says this was an unusual event. Yes indeed professor. But honestly, some people just may not want to consider a supernatural explanation because it is unusual. Ironically, if you watch a Discovery or History Channel documentary about Jesus’ resurrection, most people giving commentary or thought about how it couldn’t possibly have happened are speaking in the name of good history and science, as if taking those disciplines seriously means refusing even to consider miraculous evidence. However, closing yourself off to certain types of explanations in the name of science or critical history, no mater how compelling they are, is the definition of closed-mindedness! 

Second, Pannenburg makes the greater point that if it was true, one has to change the way that they live. Because if Jesus rose from the dead, that means that He is Lord over about all creation, salvation, and history. Let me ask you this question as we walk into 1 Corinthians 15 together these next few weeks: Have you ever considered the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection on its own terms? 

I want to challenge you these next few weeks to be open-minded enough to consider the evidence on its own terms. To walk with Peter into that empty tomb and really think about what happened. And consider that it may have actually been something like this: 

Suddenly the air was filled with strange and sweet perfume 

Light that came from everywhere drove shadows from the room 

Jesus stood before me with His arms held open wide 

And I fell down on my knees and just clung to Him and cried 

He raised me to my feet and as I looked into His eyes 

Love was shining out from Him like sunlight from the skies 

Guilt and my confusion disappeared in sweet release 

And every fear I'd ever had just melted into peace